Q&A with Davon Loeb, author of The In-Betweens

Davon Loeb is the author of The In-Betweens (West Virginia University Press, February 2023). His essay “The Ruins” was previously published in The Offing. Q&A conducted by Vonetta Young, Insight Editor.

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Vonetta Young: Davon, I’m so excited to finally get to actually talk to you! I’ve gotten to publish two of your stories, one fiction, one non-fiction for The Offing and The Rumpus. And so, I can’t tell you how honored I am to actually get to speak with you finally.

Davon Loeb: Thank you. And I’m so happy to be here. And to be a contributor to both The Rumpus and The Offing has just been a dream come true.

VY: And I’m so excited to have gotten to read an ARC of your book, The In-Betweens. I took a quick Google to see that your published cover is absolutely stunning, and it’s different from the one on the ARC. 

DL: And I actually liked the cover from the advanced reading copy.

VY: I know, it’s sparse, but also really beautiful, too. The picture on the actual cover is also delightful. Your book moved me in a number of different ways. From the first page, I was like, “Oh, him too?” I kept having these instances of seeing myself in your work, and I think that is always very powerful when a writer is able to do that. But I want to start by talking about parents. I think there’s a level of empathy, a level of respect and detachment, for lack of a better term, that I think you need to draw your parents and make them into characters. So how were you able to make your parents into characters? How were you able to get yourself there?

DL: So ironically, the first chapter, “A Love Story,” which is about my parents, seemed like the best place to start the book because it’s before me. I wanted to write it in a way that it felt like my parents were characters, with a detachment in the storytelling because I’m writing about my parents before I was born. And so, the writing about them felt freeing almost — and this can go back to our conversation about fiction and creative nonfiction — but it felt freeing to tell their love story in a way where it’s bits and pieces of what they told me. And then also trying to fill those gaps with context and time.

I always think about a Whitney Houston song, I think because I wasn’t there when my mom was in the car with my dad but I know my mom loved Whitney Houston. I know that she loved to sing, and she wasn’t very good at it. So part of the rebuilding of the story is trying to develop the character of my mom. And I think that was such a big challenge because I wanted to present her authentically but also show her growth and change as a poor Black woman who was fighting for her own independence, and then we see her change as I change and grow up into a young man. So, I think the most consistent character other than myself as a narrator is my mother. I wanted to present her in a way that was authentic but also not one where it felt like I didn’t hold her accountable.

I think it’s easier to hold my father — my real father — accountable in this chapter. There is a detachment there specifically because, as readers, we never arrive to the authentic love the narrator has for the father because the narrator never arrives to it himself. And so really, I want to take my readers on a journey from every chapter, from when I’m a baby, from when I’m a boy, to when I’m a teenager, and then a young man, trying to arrive to this authentic love but never fully arriving there. But I think with the juxtaposition of the narrator’s mother the love is always there, even if it’s contentious at times.

VY: Definitely. That is so powerful. That authentic love not arriving for one parent is a very strong and powerful statement to make and is also clear in the narrative without feeling overwhelming. I didn’t find any of the characters, for better or worse, to be monsters and there are certain places where that could have been the case, so that’s why I admire so much the way you drew both of your parents.

DL: And it was hard because they’re readers, my parents, my family, my friends. They’re reading my work. And not that I censored them, but I don’t think that you can authentically write about people, specifically as parents, without presenting both sides, without it just being blaming. I have the chapter “Something About Love,” where the mom and the narrator are trying to have this conversation about the father not loving the narrator, and she’s folding clothes and in that moment, what she’s trying to do is explain why the father isn’t loving because of the experience that he has as a kid, and how the narrator just doesn’t understand that. But it was important to add that as a marker in the narrative because it almost says, “Hey, I’m not going to just bash the father figure, so here’s a little bit of understanding.” 

VY: Exactly. I thought that section was so tough to take and also beautiful, and the kind of conversation that definitely resonated with me. Like I said, there’s so many points in your book where I was like, “Oh my God, me too.” And that was so well framed. I love the distance that the mother has because there is that natural sense of, especially as a mother now, it’s like, “Oh dear God, this is not a conversation I wanna be having.” But you still owe the child an answer because they should understand the way the world works.

DL: And I think my mother always did it with grace. And she’s also as much of a storyteller as the narrator is, definitely because the mother has to tell the family history when the narrator doesn’t know it, from either the Black side or the white side. So again, I think she is the most consistent character and even she shows growth.

VY: Definitely. Definitely. I love Black family narratives. I write Black family narratives, and yours hit on some uncomfortable things that I haven’t actually read of in a lot of Black family narratives. There’s especially that sense of cruelty in how people who love each other can often hurt each other the most. So, can you talk to me about why you wanted to address something like cruelty, specifically? 

DL: Part of what I tried to do throughout the whole book was write authentically. And I wanted to focus more on the authentic storytelling that no family is perfect. I started my memoir when I was writing my senior thesis. The first chapter was “Alabama Fire Ants,” which I think really grounds the reader in this in-betweenness of race and culture. But I remember one of the lines that stuck out to me the most was, “somehow if given the chance, the oppressed will always become the oppressor.” 

And it felt really hard to write that because it’s a weighty statement, but I just kept thinking as a kid, being half white and being the only one in my family who was half white, that there was sometimes this innate cruelty towards me that I think my family didn’t even understand. Now if I step back, families are like this, and families are just cruel. So, I want a reader, who maybe is not Black to be like, “Oh, yes. Kids are mean to each other.” But still, there is something else here, in the cruelty that is rooted in not just family history but American history. 

And that’s part of it. But there’s also this other dimension of being biracial in a family where I was the only one who looked different and how that cruelty could turn onto me. But also, because I was small, because I was annoying, and because I was skinny, I’m trying to show this multi-dimensionality in my book, rather than just being like, “Woe is me, I was half white, and they were mean to me.” It’s deeper than that. It’s richer than that. And I felt like I have to present that narrative, the authentic one, even if it’s uncomfortable.

VY: Definitely. And honestly, you challenged me even in my own work. I found that in my own work, I shied away from a lot of cruelty that I experienced as a kid because I was the skinny kid. I was the crooked-teethed kid, I was the big-eyed kid, then God forbid, I got glasses. It was always those things that wound up setting you apart somehow, wound up striking fear in the other kids, that they might wind up being set apart, too. They need to make sure that they’re protecting themselves by attacking, and that’s universal.

DL: It is. And at the same time, I was that constant reminder of the cruelty that Black families have experienced since we’ve been here, in America, and also how that’s deep-rooted in the South. Place plays such a big role in my memoir. As readers move through the book, that cruelty changes because we are in different places, which affects the storytelling.

VY: Definitely. And there is a character that the narrator had been friends with, who suddenly takes on this persona of hunting and the Confederate flag thing. I’m originally from South Jersey, grew up in North Carolina, and I’ve seen both of those sorts. I’ve seen those attitude switches, the kids who went from DMX being the best thing that ever happened to them, to only listening to, I don’t know, Kenny Chesney or something like that. And feeling very jarred by that. But it all comes back to this sense of cruelty being a way that we all wind up protecting ourselves, or at least we thinking we are protecting ourselves.

DL: And I love that chapter “On the Confederate Flag” because I’m trying to dance between loving a place, loving New Jersey, loving my summers down in the South, but also this sense of being ostracized, being treated cruelly. How can someone who literally ate dinner with my Black family all of a sudden wear Confederate flags shirts? I just didn’t get that, which led to this rage. What’s funny is that this chapter starts off with the narrator as an adult driving behind a truck that has a Confederate flag bumper sticker, and then the rage follows, wanting to ram the bumper. And then readers travel back to me being a kid when I’m first being confronted with this rage. As a kid, I felt like, “I don’t know, why are you like this? Why are you representing something that hates me and my people?” But I don’t want to ever let the narrator off easy, and I don’t want to let myself off easy. I try to write the characters authentically, but also write myself authentically, even when I’m in the wrong. That type of writing is very, very intentional.

VY: Yeah, no, that makes perfect sense. And I think it winds up coming down to, what is being in the wrong, what is the learning in the story you just told? 

DL: I want the readers to see the growth from being in Alabama as a kid and then being an adult looking back on Alabama. 

VY: So, one other thing I thought was really, really interesting, and it’s quite pervasive in the book, is the theme of masculinity, and how it evolves throughout the book. What were you seeking to show us about masculinity in America? I think I’m especially interested in your view and portrayal of Black masculinity. What were you trying to show us there?

DL: About Black masculinity specifically, there’s a piece called, “Throw the Football.” It’s about the narrator being a kid playing with Barbies. And the narrator’s uncle comes in when he’s playing with the dolls and sort of demands him to go and throw a football outside with his son. As a little boy, the narrator doesn’t understand what’s wrong with playing with the dolls. And so, I’m introducing that really early in the book, some criticism about masculinity. There’s parts of the book that are really didactic when I talk about race, when I talk about culture. And I think as Black men in America, we can do that. From James Baldwin, we learned how to talk about race, but we, Black men, still very much struggle to talk about masculinity.

Even as a heterosexual half-Black, half-white man, I’m still trying to understand how to talk about it, this culture of not talking about masculinity, and really, about toxic masculinity. But again, I do try to address it in that example of the book and in more examples, like the chapter, “Like Gladiators,” where the narrator gets into a fight with his girl cousin. There’s a line that says, “For if I hit a girl, I hit a girl, and I was never supposed to hit a girl—not even when the sun got too big for the sky and touched down on earth and burned the white right out of our teeth,” which is in reference to Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time

The narrator doesn’t want to hit his girl cousin because he feels like it’s wrong. Further through the book, the chapter “5-Series BMW,” is about the narrator and his stepfather, about his stepfather working on a car, and how he makes lewd gestures and jokes, comparing the car to a woman. The narrator just sort of stands there and doesn’t say anything, which I think is intentionally representational of masculinity — this boy is learning how to be a man from another man, and his silence is not complacency, but is because we, young men, don’t always have the right articulation to be able to be say, “No, Dad, that’s wrong.”

And then there’s a chapter, “Not the Worst of Boys,” which was really hard to write because these boys are just horrible.

VY: That was the only chapter where I was like, “Oof.” Yeah. And yet I was glad that you didn’t shy away from it.

DL: And I intentionally put that chapter after the “5-Series BMW” because I want the readers to see how this boy goes from here to there.

VY: One section is when you’re working with Janna and Susan.

DL: Yeah, so then I intentionally tried to move to “Quitting Meant Back to Babysitting,” and the narrator’s learning how to be a man from women.

VY: “I didn’t know I would learn how to be a man from a woman.” That’s an incredible line. And then it also shows the way that we as Americans even think of masculinity is that it’s synonymous with strength, with physical brawn.

DL: And the narrator can’t do it! I can’t do it. I’m learning how to do manual labor from these two women. And again, it’s intentional storytelling and all these things really happened, but what I’m trying to show is that there are didactics through this chapter, that I am questioning masculinity and maybe in a way that could be more critical but through the storytelling. However, the book isn’t just about masculinity.

VY: Exactly. And I think it is critical, even in that line, that one line to me said, “Oh, okay, so this is the way we define masculinity.” These are the boxes that we put people in — male, female, other — and we’re not allowing ourselves to be that fullest extent of authenticity that you were talking about when we started as human beings.

DL: Challenging masculinity starts in the beginning of the book. And when we get to the chapter about weightlifting, “The Makings of a Gym Rat,” the narrator is trying to fill this hole because he is small and skinny which is presented in those earlier chapters. 

So much of what the narrator learns about being a man is actually from women. When learning about manual labor, he does it through two women. In comparison, in “To Be a Man,” I’m writing about my stepfather, and really, it’s a lesson on masculinity but is an example of craft, on vehicle and tenor, and on trying to just stick with the metaphor of this dad being a machine, and dedicating the entire chapter to it. And what we learn later is that the narrator can never be like his stepfather and will always struggle with that inability to be manly. 

VY: Speaking of that chapter, “The Makings of a Gym Rat,” I thought that was one of the most moving relationships that was drawn in this book. So, yes, this relationship centers on something that is seemingly shallow. Yeah, it’s two guys working out, but it’s two guys who are learning what it means to care for not just themselves, but other people and not being afraid to do that. That was so beautiful.

DL: To step outside the book, I’ve been best friends with my best friend, Nico — I didn’t really change his name up too much, but I’ve been friends with him for over 20 years. He’s the closest human being to me, besides my wife, and much of our relationship blurs the line of masculinity. In some ways, I learned how to love through loving my best friend. And as kids in that chapter, I’m trying to show that love can be silly, like how girls liked him over the narrator and how he tries to downplay it, so the narrator isn’t upset, or how he lifts more weight than the narrator, and Nicholas, instead of trying to outdo him, lowers the weight. It’s consideration, and that’s love. 

VY: Oh my gosh. And it makes me think, I’ve heard that when it comes down to it, there are actually just two emotions, love and fear, and those being kind of the ultimate contrast. Ultimately, every single emotion you can think of comes down to either love or fear. Your book addresses so many of the ways that we love and the things that we are afraid of. So ultimately, the question that I have for you is: what is the opportunity for liberation, for freedom from all the fears that you hit on? I mean, there’s the fear of being ostracized, there’s the fear of what other people think. There’s a very real fear of being harmed just for being a Black body. Where do you think we can find freedom?

DL: I think it’s our storytelling. It’s that, for me, through the process of writing, intentionally trying to build a sense of universality. I think about my wife’s parents. They’re Italian and Irish, and they love my book, not because I’m their son-in-law, but because they see themselves in my characters. I also think, how can we make a book for kids of color who’ve never had a book like this, but also a book that our readers who may not identify with us can identify? And not everyone has to do that in their storytelling. And I don’t think it’s a prerequisite to writing about race, but for me that’s the liberation — that through writing this book, I found a sense of freedom from that in-betweenness, that I don’t feel in-between as much as I did when I was a kid, that I feel more whole because through telling these stories, realizing that my identity is a collage of different things, I feel whole and free. And I think that if we all could do that, if we all could have a sense of not just telling our stories, but reading each other’s stories, that we would find connection. And I think that’s liberation, that’s freedom.

VY: Definitely. I think there is so much to be said of, “I know my story, I know who I am, I’m on my square. And that is perfectly okay.” It’s not to say that you’re pushing everyone else away, but there’s not that maniacal fear of belonging to people who frankly you probably don’t wanna belong to, anyway. That is at the core. And I think knowing who you are is the only way to achieve that.

DL: And it’s okay to be challenged by it.

VY: Absolutely. 

DL: Like the authentic struggle throughout the book is something we all are going to go through. But at the same time, there are deeper levels to our struggles if we are of color, whatever subjectivity that we have, whatever margin we fall into, that is going to complicate our sense of identity.

VY: Exactly. Now I want to switch gears and talk about craft. Like I said, you are one of few people — three specifically, actually — whose fiction and nonfiction I have published. I think writers tend to pick a lane and stick with it. So how do you decide, when you have an idea in mind, which one you’re going to do? How do you decide when you’re going to make something up? And I caution saying when it’s going to be true because I think all stories have to be emotionally true. But how do you decide what’s going to be fiction and what’s not?

DL: Yeah. So, this is so funny. So, a good friend of mine, Chris Campanioni, we always talk about bending genres and where does this truth-seeking lie. There are many times I’ve submitted a piece of creative nonfiction and then submitted it as fiction as well. All of my fiction comes from truth-telling. The piece at The Rumpus that you and I worked on there, those are stories about the boys I grew up with. But when writing fiction, I can take a shift and have a little bit of creative freedom and focus more on storytelling rather than truth-seeking, which does feel freeing. But the craft for me is the same. Fiction forces me to be a little bit more dialogue-driven in ways I’m not in my creative nonfiction, just like I need to open up this conversation.

But I think that so much of what I write is both. One of my professors in my MFA program, Lisa Zeidner, told me in our fiction class, “Is this true?” I was like, “Yeah.” She was like, “You need to write creative nonfiction. I think you’d be really, really good at it.” And then I took a class with Paul Lisicky, who ended up being my thesis advisor, and that just opened up a world of storytelling that I didn’t even know existed. So, for me, the line between fiction and creative nonfiction always blurs because I like writing about my life. But at the same time, and I’ve thought about this before, my creative nonfiction is published more often because it’s race driven. And I feel, as a person of color, that when my fiction is not somehow grounded in the trauma and the struggles of being someone of color, it’s less likely to get published. Getting published is not why we write, but I do find that this happens too often. Ironically, the piece that we worked on together at The Offing, “The Ruins” isn’t necessarily grounded in race, but you’re also an editor of color, and I think that you see the good writing before just the race. And that’s something I struggle with.

VY: No, that makes perfect sense. And I think with that piece, what hooked me was that it actually all went back to that masculinity conversation of the way that you were able to encapsulate some of both the joy and the toxicity that live very much together in American boyhood, which I think is so interesting. And I think you’re right: given that there are just more white editors than editors of color, and I think there is that question of, “How do I do this allyship thing?” I think there is perhaps a hunger on their part. The morbid part of me is like, “Well, I think you’re also just looking for more suffering porn.” But I really do also hope that it’s more that “How do I be an ally?” part.

DL: I just want to tell the story that isn’t driven by race, but in the piece, “The Ruins,” there’s this example of the boys beating this other kid up because he makes derogatory statements about Native Americans. It’s toxic masculinity because in our society, we’re like, “Yeah, beat the kid up.” But the boys also think they’re doing the right thing because they’re trying to stand up for the Native Americans. And so how can you bridge that? It has to be intentional. And after realizing the type of writer I am, the type of stories that I want to tell, it feels more natural and innate. And then I’m like, “Okay, I see what I’m doing there.” I get into that piece turning up the parts of like, “Hey, we were appropriating culture. We’re not Native American.” We were doing it too, even though we thought we were doing the right thing, and that’s honest writing, being able to say that. 

VY: Honestly, I think you need to write another book just covering that. And speaking of this book you have written, I feel like the book’s journey was a little atypical. If you don’t mind sharing, what was the publication journey of this book?

DL: Originally, it was published in 2018.

VY: Really?

DL: It was my senior thesis. I worked with Paul Lisicky and an independent press published it. I had some issues with the press. And then in 2020, it seemed like when everything happened with George Floyd and America was just on fire… 

VY: Literally.

DL: It had a resurgence, and I started republishing chapters from the original text. And then people just seemed more interested in my work and that made me feel happy, of course, but a little skeptical. Nonetheless, there was just a resurgence in my writing, and then I had an editor recommend working with West Virginia Press—that maybe they’d republish my book. This isn’t something that I talk about much, but it is republished—yes, it is a recreated, rewritten, and new version of an older story from 2018. It took a tremendous amount of patience and resources to get out of my original contract. But the point is, that I believed that these stories mattered in a larger scheme, and I didn’t want to give up on it; I refused to just let my story end. It’s easy to just be like, “Ah, I’m done. The book didn’t go the way I wanted it to.” But I felt like the stories mattered, and it took so, so long to arrive here. 

VY: Wow.

DL: The writing is so much better than it was when it first came out. And I think there’s something about revision and recreation—it’s just something that writers don’t always come back to. When it’s done, it’s done. And I said, “No, I am not done. I’m taking my rights back and I’m fighting for this book.”

VY: Wow. That is amazing. And I think such a great way to close. Thank you for fighting for this book, and thank you for your determination to be the best writer that you can be, to be the best man you can be, to be the best Black and white person you can be. And honestly, I did find that your story challenged me to be the best person that I can be. And that’s all you can ask.

DL: That’s all that I want. One thing that I just laughed at, that it was a challenge is that when I originally wrote my memoir and finished it, I wasn’t married. I didn’t have kids. When I refinished it, when I came back to it again, to this story, I had a family, a beautiful family and a loving wife. And she brought — and I don’t give her enough credit, but — she brought a different level of consciousness to the storytelling that I didn’t always think of, a different perspective that really betters so many of the chapters. But what was hard is there’s a chapter, “A Small Lesson on Loitering,” and it ends with me being a parent and watching America burn. In it, I’m scared—so scared for my children. Ironically, two of my favorite essays, “A Small Lesson on Loitering” and “The Best Dancer” originally included my daughter. But the narrator doesn’t have a family of his own yet, so I removed that aspect from my writing, which affected the tenderness of each chapter.  

VY: Wow. And honestly, I second that. That’s one thing that we’ve had a touchpoint on, and the way that having a child has changed my writing, the fact that I haven’t been able to do the writing because of it, but the way it’s changed it in my mind has been absolutely powerful.  Thank you so much for sharing that with us.

DL: Whenever I think about that piece, “A Small Lesson on Loitering,” it just kicks me in the stomach.

VY: I can’t wait to read it one day ‘cause I’m sure it’ll hit us all in the stomach, too. Davon, thank you so much for your time. This was absolutely wonderful. And we have to continue this because we’ve got so much more to talk about.

DL: Thank you for your time and for believing in my story.

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The Ruins

There was something about being a boy here.